Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Sounds and Rhythms of Language


                          Donn Taylor

In most writing, we work mainly on getting the meaning we want into concise sentences that put the most important information in the most emphatic part of the sentence. Our concentration will vary according to the kind of writing we're doing. If we're doing technical or scientific writing, content is everything. Insofar as we can, we avoid any quality of the words that might distract from the content. We avoid drama or other emotion. And as writers, we try to disappear so that the reader can concentrate solely on the informational content.

If we are writing fiction, we pay more attention to drama and emotion, varying according to the fictional situation. In this, we are trying to give the reader a vicarious experience rather than merely convey information. This of course involves voice and style, as well as a decision on how much the reader should be aware of the writer. Yes, there is a varying balance between the reader's consciousness of content (the story) and his consciousness of the writer's language and style. The more the writing leans toward literary quality, the more conscious of language the reader will be.

I would like to call attention to two qualities we usually don't think much about: the sound and texture of words and the rhythms of sentences. We actually use these qualities any time we write, but we use them mostly by instinct without conscious thought. Yet they can give our writing added depth, and they can be used in passages of commercial fiction as well as literary fiction. This can be illustrated by a passage from my espionage thriller The Lazarus File. The hero, Mark, was missing in action in Southeast Asia when his wife and young child were killed by a drunk driver. In this scene he has finally returned and makes his first visit to their tomb in Louisiana.

Among the moss-draped oaks of the silent cemetery, Mark read again and again the brief dates of two beautiful lives. Somewhere among the oaks a redbird called to its mate, who piped her spirited reply. Quick wings whirred. Then silence returned. In the darkening cemetery, Mark stared at the marble walls and felt, as never before, man's inability to penetrate the barrier between life and death.

            What makes this passage work? The emotional mood setting by deep sounds, mostly long vowels. The contrast of those with the lighter sounds of short vowels. The contrast of monosyllables with polysyllables. The varied sentence lengths, with the sense of finality conveyed by short sentences. And this brief passage does not slow the action of the thriller.

            Truth to tell, I wish I could write like that all the time. But I can't. I was thinking of sound and rhythm when I wrote it, but in that instance it all came together with a little revision.

            How does this apply to all of us as fiction writers? We should continue to concentrate mainly on clarity and moving the story forward. But we should always be conscious of possibilities to add deeper layers of emotional meaning through the rhythms of sentences and the sounds of words.
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